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As hard as it is to believe, some Honda product planners back in the mid-'80s just weren't sure the public would accept a new line of more expensive luxury automobiles wearing the Honda emblem. The line of reasoning ran thus: Buyers expect small size, high quality and a low price from Honda, so a larger, higher-quality, high-priced car simply wouldn't fit the image.
Right or wrong, Honda chose to market its first upscale offerings through a new channel, called Acura, beginning in the 1987 model year. Although this created the challenge of establishing an identity for an all-new brand, it also gave Honda
The opportunity to handpick the Acura dealer body, which has resulted in exceptional dealer service.
Whether because of or in spite of its Honda heritage, the Acura division was a rousing success from the start, and remains so to this day even though it has been slightly upstaged by the Toyota Lexus and Nissan Infiniti divisions.
Initially, two Acura models were offered: the compact Integra and the large Legend. Two more lines, the slow-selling Vigor (now dropped) and the sensational NSX sports car, were added later. Yet another model is to be launched midway through the 1995 model year, replacing the Vigor.
The current Legend is a second-generation design that shares little but its name with the original. Though comprehensively improved, the 1995 Legend retains all the features that a member of the Acura family is expected to carry. It's exquisitely engineered, beautifully crafted, refined and reliable. Even the substantial price increases that have plagued all Japanese cars during the past few years have done little to dampen the Legend's appeal.
Sleek and conservative, the Legend is a monument to good taste and elegance in automotive design. There's not a single superfluous element in its shape, nor any add-on pieces that detract from a carefully honed air of good breeding.
From the trademark grille opening in front to the large, segmented taillights, every line flows smoothly. Of the two body styles available - sedan and coupe - the sedan is perhaps the most gracefully proportioned, looking slim and elegant, especially in dark colors. Either version has lots of glass area for good driver and passenger sightlines.
The only surprising element of the Legend concept is found under the sloping hood. The V6 engine itself is hardly unusual, though its 24 valves are operated by a single camshaft over each bank of cylinders rather than by dual cams. What's different is that the Acura engineers chose to mount the engine longitudinally rather than transversely, as is more common in front-wheel-drive applications. Improved weight distribution and the ability to design a stiffer structure around the engine are cited as the primary reasons for adopting this approach.
The Legend is offered in five versions. The sedan comes in three models: the base L, midlevel LS and luxurious GS. The coupe comes in two models: L and LS. Both coupes and the Sedan GS are supplied with a 230-hp version of the V6 engine (the base engine develops 200 hp) with a 6-speed manual transmission. The Sedan L is equipped with a 5-speed manual, and a 4-speed automatic transmission is available on all models except the Sedan LS.
Our test car was a Coupe LS, the top of the Legend coupe lineup.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an automotive interior more thoughtfully designed or richly appointed than this one. Whether rated on control placement, seat comfort, amenities or care taken in assembly, the Legend cabin stands out as a model of refinement. Virtually every convenience known to drivers and passengers is standard here, with a 6-disc trunk-mounted CD changer for the Acura/Bose sound system as one of the very few interior options.
Though the sedan will seat five, four people will be most comfortable in either body style. There's plenty of stretch-out room in front and back, and the front seats can be adjusted to accept occupants large or small. The burl walnut accent trim on the uplevel Legends is appropriately applied, though the fake wood bits in base cars may disappoint.
A roomy trunk complements the interior. With nearly 15 cu. ft. of well-shaped stowage space available (the coupe's cargo bay is a shoe box or so smaller), the Legend sedan will accept as much luggage as the average foursome might ever want to carry.
Under way, the Legend cabin is whisper quiet, with temperatures kept at a comfortable level by the standard automatic climate control.
Once you've adjusted the seat and electrically operated tilt/ telescope steering wheel to suit, the time you need to spend familiarizing yourself with the Legend is over. This big Acura is easy to drive, offers no unpleasant surprises in terms of handling and does what's asked of it with a minimum of fuss.
Providing calm, quiet travel over distances both short and long is the task the Legend handles best. On the highway, though, the Legend will run out of fuel before most passengers ask for a rest stop.
The picture changes slightly when the Legend is driven aggressively. Though the steering is nicely matched to all other controls in terms of effort, it lacks the absolute precision you might expect from a sport sedan. Body roll begins to increase as cornering speeds rise, to the point where passengers will notice and, perhaps, complain.
Nearer to the Legend's limits, the front tires begin to howl, a good indication that it's time to slow down. At that point, the excellent all disc/anti-lock braking system proves capable of handling even the severest stopping chores without pull or fade.
In this regard, the uplevel versions, with their larger-diameter tires (P215/ 55R-16), are more composed when used hard. The bigger tires allow higher cornering speeds and slightly increase the steering's responsiveness.
The Sedan GS and Coupe LS also offer a standard traction control system, a worthwhile addition for wet-weather driving.
For everyday use, the standard engine is more than acceptable. To get the benefits of the higher horsepower in the Sedan GS and the coupes, it's necessary to rev the engine higher; below 5000 rpm or so, the difference is negligible. Whichever engine you choose, you'll have one of the more refined powerplants on the road. Engines have always been a Honda strong suit, and the Legend V6 versions are jewels of precision.
The 6-speed manual transmission that comes with the more powerful engine is not quite up to the standards set by the rest of the car, as it suffers from a stiff, notchy linkage. The automatic is a better choice for all-around driving, unless your driving style requires extracting maximum performance.
There's a lot to like - and precious little to criticize - about the Legend. Even in its most expensive form, it represents good value, whether rated for ease of use or resale. By all accounts, the Legend, like other Acuras (and Hondas), is well above average in reliability terms, too.
In addition, the engineering is innovative and the quality is world-class.
It's true that Legend pricing has escalated sharply over the past few years, but Acura, like others competing in the luxury-car business, has attractive leasing deals that diminish some of the pain of purchase.
If a competent, conservative luxury car suits your needs, go see your nearest Acura dealer at the beginning of your shopping excursion.
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